Our Story

Est 1987

We were established in 1987 by myself, Fran Cotton, and Steve Smith. Two former rugby captains, our teamwork began on the pitch – playing for the Barbarians, England and the British Lions, to name a few – and, from small beginnings on a trading estate in Sale, developed beyond the world of rugby into one of Britain’s most successful, home-grown multi-channel retailers.


Fran and Steve first meet

The pair first meet when playing rugby for Loughborough P.E. College

Fran: ‘We didn’t get on so well at first. I kept thinking, who’s this cheeky so-and-so? But in the end, we hit it off and we’ve been team-mates ever since!’


Fran’s cap

Fran gets his first England cap.

Fran: ‘It was such an exciting time in my life and I felt like anything was possible’


Steve’s cap

Steve gets his first England cap.

Steve: ‘They only let me be Captain once Fran had left!’


Prestigious tours

The two friends take part in prestigious tours to South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, and the USA & Canada. They also play in Bill Beaumont’s Grand Slam team.


Fran and Steve join Butka Sportswear

August 1987

Cotton Traders is born

Cotton Traders starts life in a tiny office at the back of Altrincham railway station.

Steve: ‘It took us maybe two minutes to come up with the name. Interestingly, you can’t normally trademark the word ‘Cotton’ because it’s a fabric – but you can if it’s someone’s name!’

September 1987

The White Story

The guys decide to risk everything with an advertisement in a Sunday paper – the advert was later dubbed ‘The White Story’, and is remembered as one of the most successful adverts in the history of ‘off the page’.

Steve: ‘To be honest, we thought we’d blown it. I went into the office on Monday morning, ready to tell everyone that it had all gone pear-shaped…and I couldn’t open the door because of all the orders piled up in the hall!’


First replica licensing agreement

Fran and Steve obtain a licensing agreement with the Rugby Union to create replica England rugby shirts. Over the next few years other countries come into the deal. Wales in 1992, South Africa in 1994.

Fran: ‘We were lucky with the timing, really. Sports fashions were just beginning to cross over into the mainstream. Now everyone’s wearing them.’


Mandela sports Cotton Traders

Nelson Mandela attends the Rugby World Cup in South Africa wearing a Cotton Traders rugby shirt.

Steve: ‘It was a very proud moment. I kept telling everyone that Nelson would be wearing one of our shirts but they didn’t believe me! Then there he was.’


NEXT joins the team

Thanks to David Jones, former Chief Executive and Chairman of Next, Cotton Traders obtains vital financial investment from Next.


Cotton Traders’ first retail store

Cotton Traders opens it’s first retail store at Cheshire Oaks. They go on to open another 100 stores around the UK.

Steve: ‘It was clear that this was the future of retail shopping – out of town locations with plenty of parking and plenty of choice.'


Cotton Traders’ first garden centre

The guys open a retail outlet in an unusual location – a garden centre!

Fran: ‘I was sitting in one of those places one weekend, drinking coffee and I looked around at all the customers wandering around ready to spend money, and a light bulb went on in my head!’


New media

The Cotton Traders website is launched


Cotton Traders hits the big screen

The movie Invictus is released. Directed by Clint Eastwood, it stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar…and lots of vintage Cotton Traders rugby shirts as themselves!